Today I’m looking back 20 years and counting down my top 20 albums of 2003. In this first part, I’ll be looking at 20 down to 11. As we reach the 20th anniversary of the albums released in 2003, it’s hard not to look back on this particular year as a crucial moment in indie rock history. For me, cemented in my Junior and Senior year of college, I dove deeper into my obsession with music and expanded my horizons even deeper into indie rock.
That said, even without the continuing formative nature of the early 2000s for me personally, there were quite a few important and influential releases in 2003, and it would define and shape the sounds and styles of independent rock that would come to dominate the scene in the following years.
Whether it was through the emergence of new bands or the continued success of established acts, the music of 2003 left an indelible mark on the genre with many albums continuing to be celebrated and cherished by fans today. As always, I’m focused on albums that are in my collection.
You can check out Part 2 here.
Watch the coverage instead, if you prefer:
Let’s begin with an honorable mention, simply because it’s a single and not the album itself.
20 | Hail to the Thief by Radiohead (Honorable Mention)
Hail to the Thief comes in as an honorable mention because the LP isn’t actually in my collection, but the single for “There There” is. My copy is the lone 12-inch single for “There There” and includes three songs; the B-side includes “Paperbag Writer” and “Where Bluebirds Fly.”
Hail to the Thief is the sixth studio album by one of the most groundbreaking bands of the 90s and 00s: Radiohead.
Sprawling and politically charged, it blends electronic beats and angular guitars with Thom Yorke’s ever-haunting vocals to create a sound that both urgent and anxious with disillusionment.
Hail to the Thief was a critical and commercial success in 2003, earning widespread acclaim for its incisive commentary on politics, society, and the human condition. All relatively common themes throughout Radiohead’s career.
Had it been in my collection, it would have been higher.
19 | Chrome Rats vs Basement Ruts by Chromatics
Chrome Rats vs Basement Ruts is the debut album by American electronic band Chromatics. I say electronic, but back in 2003, they created sludgy, lo-fi, experimental garage rock blending elements of post-punk, new wave, and maybe just a hint electronic music. By 2006, the band would be unrecognizable, but this early sound still is not one that should be ignored. It stands out and stands alone in its own way.
Listen to “Hannah’s Song” below:
This LP is long out of print, and you can’t even stream the band’s first two albums on Spotify, so it’s unlikely to find its way back anytime soon. Copies of Chrome Rats vs. Basement Ruts are available on Discogs, but as of the original publishing of this post, they’ll run you upwards of $50 USD.
18 | Where Shall You Take Me? by Damien Jurado
Damien Jurado is among the most prolific indie folk artists around, and he continues to make music today in 2023. His 2003 LP, Where Shall You Take Me?, was his seventh studio album at the time, and it was a haunting and introspective release that really helped to define the folk and indie folk sound of the early 2000s. In fact, “Omaha” remains among fans’ most cherished Jurado tracks.
The album’s sparse instrumentation, stripped-down arrangements, and evocative storytelling, combined with Jurado’s rich and soulful vocals, are intimate and deeply affecting. It saw Jurado maturing and moving away from some of the heavier folk-rock sounds he had given us before.
My favorite off the album is “Intoxicated Hands” and you can listen to that one below:
As mentioned above, Jurado is extremely prolific. He’s been cranking out releases annually for the last few years, and his latest dropped the last day of March. It’s called Sometimes You Hurt The Ones You Hate, and you can be sure I’ll be checking it out here shortly!
17 | The Ugly Organ by Cursive
In 2003, The Ugly Organ saw Cursive giving us their boldest, most ambitious, and most accessible release yet. And despite being more accessible than their earlier work, it pushed the boundaries of both emo and post-hardcore. The album’s intricate, angular guitar work and visceral, confessional lyrics, combined with the use of horns and keyboards, created a sound that was both aggressive and emotionally raw.
Here’s the music video for “Art is Hard,” a fan favorite from the album:
According to Discogs, there are currently 5 vinyl versions of The Ugly Organ and all are out of print. Don’t spring for them quite yet as 20th or even 25th anniversaries often get paired with a reissue or even a remaster. So my guess is we’ll see another pressing eventually.
16 | Keep On Your Mean Side by The Kills
Keep On Your Mean Side is the debut album by rock band The Kills. It’s a raw and unapologetic release that helped redefine the garage rock sound of the early 2000s. It features stripped-down instrumentation, gritty vocals, and dark, brooding lyrics that create a sound both primal and hypnotic.
There are a handful of versions, including US and European pressings. While the 2003 versions are out of print, the 2009 variants are still widely available.
“Fried My Little Brains” is one of a few off the LP with a music video. Check that out below:
15 | Monday at the Hug & Pint by Arab Strap
Monday at the Hug and Pint was my introduction to Scottish duo Arab Strap, but it didn’t come until just a few years ago when my friend Laura finally convinced me to check it out. It’s a dark and brooding masterpiece that really kind of pushed the boundaries of indie rock in 2003.
Like pretty much everything from frontman Aidan Moffat, the lyrics are a gritty confessional coupled with Moffat’s unmistakable — and often off-kilter and somewhat out-of-tune — Scottish drawl. The result is a bleak album that captivated listeners with its raw and unflinching and explicit portrayal of love, sex, and addiction.
This has been out of print a while, but copies are available for under $100 USD on Discogs.
Here’s “The Shy Retirer” for your listening pleasure:
14 | Haha Sound by Broadcast
Haha Sound is the third studio album by British psychedelic pop band Broadcast. It’s a mesmerizing and otherworldly release that blends elements of retro-futurism, dream-pop, and experimental electronica into a sound that’s both haunting and beautiful.
The album’s use of vintage analog synthesizers, lush harmonies, and Trish Keenan’s ethereal vocals creates a surreal atmosphere that is instantly captivating. Broadcast was one of the more innovative and influential bands in the experimental electronic and dream-pop scenes of the early 2000s.
Sadly, Keenan passed away from pneumonia while in Australia back in 2011.
“Man is Not a Bird” is one of my favorites off the LP. Listen to it below:
Last year, Broadcast released Maida Vale Sessions which included four BBC session recordings from their heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
13 | The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky
The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is the third album by instrumental post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. The LP is a breathtaking release that helped to redefine the post-rock genre in 2003, even beyond what the band gave us on their 2001 LP. With soaring, cinematic soundscapes, built on intricate guitar interplay and powerful drumming, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place created a sound that was both epic and intimate.
My copy, pictured above, is a original 2003 repress, though several other versions exist, including reissues in 2011 and 2016.
“First Breath After Coma” has always been a favorite of mine:
12 | Electric Version by The New Pornographers
Electric Version is the second album by Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers. The album’s irresistible blend of power pop, indie rock, and perhaps even a little baroque pop, along with the collective’s trademark harmonies and intricate arrangements, made it a truly captivating listen.
I remember becoming obsessed with “From Blown Speakers” and “Testament to Youth In Verse” and “ Ballad of a Comeback Kid” and last year I finally got a copy on vinyl.
Listen to “Testament to Youth in Verse” below:
The New Pornographers returned in 2023 with a new LP called Continue as a Guest, and I’m pretty hooked on it these days. Early prediction is that it’ll be a top 10 release for me this year.
11 | Amazing Grace by Spiritualized
Space rock, neo-psychedelic, and even shoegaze make an appearance on Amazing Grace, the sixth studio album by Spiritualized. Raw and powerful, the release marked somewhat of a departure from the lush, orchestral soundscapes of some of their previous albums.
Blending bluesy guitars, gospel choirs, and Jason Pierce’s soulful vocals created a sound that was both cathartic and transcendent — honestly, the latter is and was at the time nothing new to Spiritualized — yet it had a sense of urgency and intensity pervading throughout.
A fitting end to the first half of the countdown, I’m including the final track on Amazing Grace, “Lay it Down Slow,” below:
Don’t Forget to Check Out Part 2!
Part 2 is coming soon, so don’t forget to stick around and check it out when it’s live. I’ll drop a link here when it is, but you can also be notified by joining my email list.
Down below, there’s a way to hop on this list and get regular vinyl recommendations from me. These overlap with the content I post here and on my YouTube Channel, but include bonus selections and recommendations!